Russia

Getting Medvedev’s message

A belligerent state-of-the-nation address from Russia’s president

IT TOOK Dmitry Medvedev a while to find a suitable moment for his first state-of-the-nation address. The date had changed twice before the Kremlin settled for November 5th. This timing was meant to show that Russia’s agenda is unaffected by such trivia as America’s presidential election. But it also smacked of rival attention-seeking: even as the world listened to Barack Obama’s victory speech, Mr Medvedev was laying out a Russian version of democracy. The main television news devoted 45 minutes to Mr Medvedev, leaving just five minutes for Mr Obama.

The two main events of the year, Mr Medvedev said, had been the August war in Georgia and the world economic crisis. And America bore responsibility for both. The war stemmed from the presumptuous policies of America’s government; the economic crisis was a result of its arrogance and selfishness. It had ignored the advice of countries such as Russia and undermined everybody’s financial markets. Yet Russia, he promised, will not back down in the Caucasus—and nor will it be pulled down by the economic crisis.

Mr Medvedev did not even refer to Mr Obama’s victory in his speech, let alone congratulate him (he sent a telegram later). Indeed, he suggested that it was for America to make a move towards repairing its relationship with Moscow. He also offered a response to the expansion of NATO and the construction of missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia will place short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, on Europe’s border, and also install a radio-electronic device to scramble America’s missile-defence system.

Alexander Golts, a Russian military analyst, says that this is the first time since the cold war that Russia has declared its intention to create a military threat to the West. Whether it can be backed by real military capabilities is another question. The timing of this threat looks particularly odd: even Soviet hawks used to wait for six months after an American election to make big statements of military strategy.

Having delivered his attacks on America, Mr Medvedev spent most of his 90-minute speech talking about Russian politics. His liberal-sounding language might have come from an opposition politician. He lashed out at excessive bureaucracy that yields nothing but corruption, and gave warning against state meddling in private business. Bureaucracy is guided by the same mistrust of free enterprise as 20 years ago, he said: it frightens business so that it doesn’t do the wrong thing, controls the media so that they don’t say the wrong thing and interferes in elections so that voters don’t back the wrong person.

This last point was pretty hollow coming from a man who was hand-picked as president by his predecessor and patron, Vladimir Putin. Mr Medvedev also enjoyed the full might of Russia’s bureaucratic and media machine on his way to the top job. Yet a mismatch between words and actions is a trademark of the Kremlin. It seems that it can adopt liberal or nationalist rhetoric with equal ease to push its message of strength and power.

Thus, Mr Medvedev went out of his way to pay respect to the constitution, only to propose a significant change: to extend the presidential term from four to six years, and the parliament’s from four to five years. This was not originally Mr Medvedev’s idea. Mr Putin first suggested it last year and he may also be the main beneficiary. The new rules will come into effect only at the next presidential election. If Mr Putin, widely seen as Russia’s real boss, decides to return when Mr Medvedev’s first term expires in 2012, he could then be looking at another 12 years in power.

The planned extension of the presidential term was accompanied by liberal gestures that would in practice make little difference to Russia’s highly autocratic political system. Mr Medvedev said that the government should be made more accountable to parliament, for example. In reality, however, the Russian parliament was long ago turned into a rubber-stamping body dominated by Mr Putin’s United Russia party. There is no longer any significant opposition to speak of.

One area Mr Medvedev did not talk enough about was the economy, even though this is what most Russians are now worried about. He warned state bureaucrats and law enforcers not to exploit the crisis to settle scores or grab assets. But he said little about how to unblock the banking system or tame public spending. Indeed, Mr Medvedev’s main response to the financial crisis appears to be more anti-Americanism and moves to preserve the political system. This is unlikely to make Russia more democratic or prosperous.

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